Opening of the Clifton Suspension Bridge
Joining the two jaws of the gaping maw of Bristol’s Avon Gorge, Clifton Suspension Bridge is a remarkable feet of engineering. Literally breathtaking, there seems to be – as with most suspension bridges – a sense of magic, of illusion; they are magnificent structures that defy gravity and non-engineers’ comprehension of the physics of civil engineering. Located in Clifton Downs, part of Bristol’s leafy and well-healed West End, the bridge requires continual maintenance, but despite the de rigueur mechanics, and tender loving care on the bridge’s load bearing cables, the bridge remains aesthetically and essentially unchanged from Brunel’s original blueprint. Brunel was probably feeling a little chastened when he returned from France; denied entry to the École Polytechnique, his future as an engineer appear to have stalled, albeit temporarily. Taking inspiration from his father and Thomas Telford , Brunel had a vision, and would become a revolutionary figure in the ranks of engineering, where his name became a byword for innovation. Clifton Suspension Bridge was not the only evidence of Brunel’s genius to be left in Bristol; Bristol Temple Meads railway station and Bristol Harbour and the Underfall Yard were both conceived in his vision. But the bridge seems more iconic, and most certainly more daring – 19th Century derring-do at some 230 feet above the waters of the Avon . It was on the 1st October, 1829, Brunel replied to an advertisement doing the rounds in the local papers. A new bridge to cross the Avon Gorge was needed, and Brunel, mindful of his father’s work for the French Government in the Reunion Islands, submitted his plan for the suspension bridge.
The project stalled when the Bridge Committee consulted Telford. He, the more experienced and recognised authority, proposed his design. Featuring a Gothic pier design, it wasn’t as wantonly ambitious. But it would be expensive – Brunel remarked. He, however, had faith in his design. He was the younger, more cavalier engineer, and while Telford’s proposal was being mooted over in parliament, the Bridge Committee, steered by Davies Gilbert, reassessed the situation. Brunel had the commission.
On the 26th March, 1831, work began on the bridge. Financial problems dogged the project. So too civil unrest; the Bristol Riots momentarily delaying construction. By 1836, the foundations were laid on High Leigh. Brunel did not limit his valour to the pages of his sketch pad, hanging from a 1.5” iron bar laid across the Avon Gorge, Brunel crossed the gap on a basket suspended below the precarious iron bar.
Brunel died before the bridge’s completion. The project, taken over by John Hawkshaw and William H Barlow, was resurrected. All the necessary amendments to Brunel’s design were made as the bridge was assembled. Brunel’s idea of laminated timber was replaced by that of iron girders. But, when the bridge opened in the winter of 1864, it was to the layman’s eye identical to his design, and is a lasting tribute to his superlative influence on the city of Bristol.
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